Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Buddha at the Apocalypse - Preface

Awakening from a Culture of Destruction

Preface

Only now, after several hundred years, is the destructiveness of our way of life starting to become apparent. Global climate change, environmental degradation, economic instability—these are just the top items on the list. But perhaps the most striking thing about it all is that our awareness of this truth has been so long in coming. Why were so few people listening? And why are so few responding even now?

One of the reasons would have to be culture. Our cultural heritage has taught us to believe that the “Forward March of Progress” is unstoppable and unequivocally good—if we just keep going straight ahead, a better life is guaranteed. A common enough sentiment, but this idea rests on another one whose significance is often overlooked.

All societies have their founding myths, and in the West ours has been the myth of what I call “Apocalyptic history.” We’ve been taught to see our existence as a road, a journey through the ages that will lead to the tran- scendence of time itself. This view has its roots in many places, among them the Bible, which promises that someday “time shall be no more.” The journey begins with the Creation and it ends with the Apocalypse.

Like all great myths, this one has enjoyed two lives. First, it once served as a literal truth—an account of reality. And second, it has helped to build a mental architecture that continues to shape modern life unconsciously. Even those of us who no longer believe in Adam and Eve or the return of Jesus might still assume implicitly that time is like a road moving forward to a day when everything will at last be revealed. Many secular progressives, entrepreneurs, and even scientists appear to think this way. But “progress” as such, and especially as an unequivocal good, is really an article of faith, and not at all an empirical fact.

That faith still has its fundamentalists too. As we can see from the truly massive resurgence of Apocalyptic thinking in our time, what some of us regard simply as a myth is far from dead as a literal truth. For people living in an era so complex that it threatens to tip into utter incoherence, the old notion of an underlying plan has an existential power we can’t dismiss as the craziness of a few radicals. No, belief in the End Times is truly alive and well in our culture. And yet the paradigm of time as a road might prove fatal in a universe governed by complexity rather than by Providence.

In this book I argue that the culture of the West begins with a refusal of complexity, or at least a deep ambivalence about it. This refusal has made the universe a battlefield, not just between good and evil but between the apparent chaos of life on earth and God’s order up in heaven. Whether we are comfortable admitting it or not, the God of the Bible sometimes uses violence to maintain a master plan in the midst of a chaotic universe.

The history of religion in the West is quite complex in its own right. As someone who was raised in the Christian faith, I still owe more than I can ever repay to the ethics of love and forgiveness that I learned from the scriptures and from the communities where my family was made welcome. And yet, as a society we’ll never understand how things have gone so remarkably wrong unless we have the courage to address what is dark and dangerous in our tradition. And that understanding can be greatly helped by finding another vantage point—a new place to look back at ourselves. Buddhism, in my view, is just such a place. Buddhism might flourish in the West, or it might disappear as quickly as it came, but while it’s here it can offer us another way to think about our lives in time.

This book is part of a larger multi-volume project to which a number of friends and colleagues have contributed very generously. That, of course, doesn’t mean they always agreed with me. Foremost among those would be Jacky Sach, whose confidence in the basic argument encouraged me at many stages. Others who took the time to read and discuss portions of the project were Kritee, Imtiaz Rangwalla, John McClure, Richard Miller, Dawn Skorczewski, and Raymond Baldino. I learned a great deal from every one of them. I would also like to thank Josh Bartok, my editor at Wisdom, for his advice, good humor, and, yes, real wisdom. Many thanks to you all.

 

How to cite this document:
© Kurt Spellmeyer, Buddha at the Apocalypse (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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